A Touch of Kim Stanley
Intergenerational Rivalries, a Backstage War, and a Cursed Production
Welcome to the very first installment of Complete Works, a newsletter where writers share the invisible parts of their work! You’ll be hearing from a lot of people who are not me over the coming months, but to inaugurate the newsletter, I thought I’d start with something from my own work.
My forthcoming book The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act spans a century on two continents and has dozens of characters. I easily could’ve spent the rest of my life researching it, and the rest of someone else’s writing it. Not having two lives to spare, I instead needed to be ruthless about what stayed in the book and what didn’t. So here’s a story that I had to cut down when I included it in the book. Some of this appears in The Method in a radically different form, mostly because it’s an important story for understanding the actress Kim Stanley.
Today, many people have no idea who Kim Stanley is. She only made six films, and her greatest work was reserved for theater and live television drama. In the 50s and 60s, however, she was considered the greatest actress of her generation. Stanley’s rise to Broadway stardom occurred at a moment of fraught transition in American acting between the more external and technique-driven approach that had been the standard for generations and the much messier, psychological and emotional approach of the Method. This clash in styles—a clash as ideological as it was aesthetic—added rich new layers to films like Red River or Anatomy of a Murder, but it almost destroyed a particularly cursed production Stanley starred in of Eugene O’Neill’s late play A Touch of the Poet.
A Touch of the Poet had been beset by problems from the outset. Producer Robert Whitehead and director Harold Clurman had wanted to do a different O’Neill play but couldn’t get the rights. Poet, the only completed play in what was to be a historical cycle that documented how America had gained the whole world but forfeited its soul, is uneven, structurally clumsy, and way too long. Yet O’Neill’s widow Carlotta Monterey woudn’t allow Clurman to alter the script. He wound up cutting half an hour out of it anyway and brazened it out, insisting he had made no cuts whenever Monterey complained about a missing line.
All this paled in comparison to the problems Clurman and Whitehead would have with their cast.
Harold Clurman began his directing career in the Group Theatre, which he co-founded in 1931. The Group employed a permanent ensemble of actors, who they trained in an approach to acting which would, by the time of Poet’s premiere, be called the Method. Clurman’s rehearsal process involved very long periods of highly intellectual script analysis with his cast, and he was far more comfortable leading actors to psychological and emotional truth than he was staging plays or engaging with the external parts of the actor’s job.
When he worked with the Group, Clurman could rest assured that his entire cast shared his values. They had trained and codified a way of making plays together. But while Kim Stanley understood Clurman’s process and had worked with him before, her co-stars Helen Hayes and Eric Portman came out of the traditions Clurman sought to upend. Helen Hayes was such a titan of the theatrical old guard that the theater Poet premiered in was named after her. In his 1937 book Players at Work, Morton Eustis describes Hayes’s process as proceeding from “objective” analysis of the play to creating an image in her mind of what the character might look like in real life. “Miss Hayes keeps always in front of her the mental vision of the woman she is going to portray,” he wrote, “and tries never… to visualize herself… as the woman.” Hayes worked out her interpretations of her characters well before the first rehearsal and, once the staging of the show was set, never varied her performances at all.
Eric Portman, meanwhile, was a transitional figure in the British stage. Raised in the melodramatic tradition, he had a crash course in more naturalistic acting thanks to a successful career in British films of the 1940s (he’s particularly great as Thomas Colpeper in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale.) “I have definitely profited through the years of concentrated close-up work in film studios,” he told an interviewer. “It has helped me to portray across the footlights the mental processes of [my roles].” But naturalism to Portman was a style. It did not require elaborate textual analysis by a director or sense memory exercises to achieve.
It wasn’t long before Hayes and Portman were finding Clurman’s way of working equal parts bewildering and tiresome. Hayes described the process in her memoir as more like a college seminar than a rehearsal. As for Portman, he once griped to Hayes that, “We’ve had our scripts for months and presumably have done our homework. We should be getting the play on its feet, but Clurman keeps on talking and talking.” By the time the show lumbered through its out of town try outs, Portman and Clurman were no longer on speaking terms, and the director had to deliver his notes through intermediaries.
Despite this, the show opened in October, 1958 to a rapturous review from the New York Times and began what everyone thought would be a long and successful run. Backstage, however, all hell was breaking loose. Kim Stanley, playing the third lead in Poet opposite Portman and Hayes, was essentially their opposite. Stanley was a devotee of Method acting, and a regular at the Actors Studio. She was famous for the raw vitality of her performances, and for playing the moment wherever it took her rather than “freezing” her parts. She was brilliant, mercurial, versatile, and difficult. Not for nothing would her contemporaries dub her “the Female Brando.” As Austin Pendleton described to me in an interview, “[Kim] was a great technician, but the richness of that woman—It redefined the word `immediacy’ to me.” According to Pendleton, Jerome Robbins, the director of West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof once told him, “I go to see everything Kim Stanley does twice.”
But Stanley was also an alcoholic and a relentless perfectionist. Nothing in her own work was ever good enough for her, which fueled both her brilliance and her high levels of anxiety and rage. Shortly after Poet opened, Stanley began missing performances, supposedly due to a recurring virus. She even once left the show in the middle of its second act, right before an entrance, stranding Helen Hayes on stage while understudy Nancy Malone quickly donned Stanley’s costume. One time, when Stanley returned after an absence from the show, Eric Portman deadpanned, “feeling better?” in lieu of a greeting. She never spoke to him again.
The two were having other problems. Portman was no stranger to the bottle himself and, according to Stanley, would often take the opportunity of an on stage slap to actually smack her. Robert Whitehead tried to broker a peace deal between his leads and, when that failed, Stanley asked to be let out of her contract. Whitehead agreed, and said he wouldn’t complain to the actors’ union about her breaking her contract, but he had one condition: she must agree to tell the press that she was leaving the show due to illness.
Instead, Stanley called the press, telling Louis Calta of the New York Times that “the general artistic atmosphere” of the show “had made it impossible for me to stay.”
Stanley went further with the New York Post, telling a reporter that a specific unnamed cast member had driver her from the production. The public, primed for a cat fight, assumed that the problem was Helen Hayes, who tried as hard as she could to disabuse reporters of the notion that she was behind Stanley’s departure. “I am the innocent bystander in this thing,” she told The New York Times, “and I am distressed at these reports.” After a week of suspense, Stanley went public with the name of her antagonist.
Despite this, friends of Helen Hayes took it upon themselves to phone Time Magazine and claim that the real fight was between Stanley and Hayes and that Stanley was at fault. Infuriated by the whole debacle, Hayes called Kim Stanley’s agent to vent, calling Stanley a “vicious woman,” and a “self-centered and inhuman person” who “killed all my laughs.”
The whole issue began to die down, but one problem remained: who would replace Kim Stanley? Nancy Malone, her understudy, was the obvious choice. Malone, sensing she had the producers over a barrel, demanded a pay raise to $500 a week (or about $4,500 a week in today’s dollars). They said no, and she walked.
Stanley’s role was eventually taken over by Cloris Leachman, another Actors Studio alum who would go on to win an Oscar for her performance in The Last Picture Show. As for A Touch of the Poet, the producers hoped that all the press attention might keep the show running but the ongoing scandals in the press likely depressed ticket sales, and the show quietly closed in June 13,1959. It would end up the most successful Broadway production of A Touch of the Poet with either critics or audiences.
After Stanley left the show—but before it closed—Helen Hayes gave an interview to Variety. They asked her about Kim Stanley and the friction between the two actors. Hayes gave a response that seemed mostly saddened by the burdens her co-star had placed on herself. Hayes maintained that Kim Stanley was “a perfect actress,” but had driven herself to madness with her perfectionism. She was always “striving for… an opening-night level of performance… on a rainy Thursday.”
According to Stanley’s biographer Jon Krampner, when a friend told her about Hayes’s comments, she responded, “I’d never want to go back and repeat it as on opening night. I’d expect it to be better.”